Bill Shannon: Dancing With Four Feet And Two Faces

Bill Shannon presented a lecture at The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, which, like his personal journey, started with a narration of being born with a “degenerative hip condition.” This condition caused Shannon to need crutches from the age of five. Shannon went on to explain that a child walking with crutches is very different than an adult. Having “two extra legs” as a kid made him perceive them as “accomplices” to his movement rather than barriers. Eventually, he learned to make them a part of his bodily-movements, not only while walking but also in his dance and skate-board routines.

His career progressed with street performance work that explored the sociological impulse of people who wanted to help him due to his ever-present disability. Usually, helping someone with a disability conveys power, yet Shannon changed the power dynamic through his performances. During this lecture, he shared a video showing how he first acknowledges the help given to him, then starts to lead the subject, and finally ends up in charge.  Through these street performance experiments, he grew into an artist of great caliber. You can watch examples of his street performances on his YouTube channel.

His most recent venture has sparked the interest of art and technology communities alike.  He utilizes a Self-Contained Wearable Video Mask, which has projections and audio coming from the inside. This makes the video an unconventional part of his performance. The artistic concept behind it is to reverse the relationship between the backdrop of a performance and the performing artist. He believes, “if you have a video all over the stage, it’s a video show and not a dance one…I’m trying to change the power Dynamic.”  He draws parallels between this digital, interpersonal exploration and human behavior on social media. How we project our thought and ideas onto a platform is similar to physically projecting yourself through the medium of video. This project, “Touch Update,” is supported by New England Foundation of The Arts' National Dance Production Fund, Heinz Endowment's Small Arts Initiative, and The National Performance Network. It will premiere at the Kelly Strayhorn Theatre on May 11th, 2018.

Bill Shannon wearing an early edition of his video face mask. Source here:

Bill Shannon wearing an early edition of his video face mask. Source here:

The use of technology to emote oneself through two mediums at the same time is refreshing. Adding layers to the performance through interaction with a video-mask is an innovative form of art-making. The technology associated with it is unique but not expensive. Shannon had originally started making face masks with junk he collected from train yards. The layering of different instruments is a common phenomenon in music compositions, however layering of different technology mediums is often restricted to big-budget organizations. Arts organizations can take a leaf out of his book, to engage their audiences better by creatively using mixed mediums.

Shannon’s story is not one of a dancer with disabilities, but one of a dancer utilizing multiple technologies. One of the most jarring things he remembers is a review of one of his performances, titled “The hip is bad, but the Hop is sensational,” which discussed the idea of disability and how it is an inseparable part of his identity and art. Bill Shannon doesn't agree with this assertion, but this review raises important questions for the audience. Do we view disabled artists in the same light as others with no disability?  Shannon is changing this perspective and moving towards the idea of “a disabled dance with no representation of disability,” a world where he is recognized for his art more than his disability.